By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - Just as the Ranger rides into the sunset in the United States, the importance of Ford Motor Co's
"You know how important trucks are to Ford throughout the world," said Joe Hinrichs, head of Ford in Asia and Africa. "And, really, with the exception of North America, (the Ranger) is the truck for Ford around the world. It's critically important to us from Asia to Africa to South America and Australia, too."
Hinrichs was in Johannesburg this week for the start of the motor show in South Africa's largest city, where an all-new Ranger is being featured.
The new Ranger will soon be shipped to 148 markets from South Africa, where Ford is increasing its output of the pickup truck to 110,000 per year.
Hinrichs did not say how many of the utility truck the company expects to sell. Currently, Ford sells about 275,000 Rangers globally.
The new Ranger will hit showrooms in South Africa by the end of November.
Three months ago, Ford began production of a diesel engine that will be put into the new Ranger, part of a $500 million investment in an engine plant and assembly plant in South Africa.
Hinrichs said the upgraded plants will turn Ford's South African production to one that primarily feeds the global market.
Of the 110,000 Rangers to be built in South Africa, only a quarter of them will remain in the country and the rest will be exported, mainly to Europe and other countries in Africa.
Ford will sell the Ranger in 180 countries. Rangers will also be made at Ford plants in Thailand and Argentina.
The Ranger is the latest example of the company's "One Ford" manufacturing and product system, which centers on marketing essentially the same vehicle globally.
The Ranger will be near-global, because it won't be sold in North America, where the first Ranger was developed in the early 1980s.
Ford will stop selling the Ranger in the U.S. market early next year after halting production of it at its historic St. Paul, Minnesota plant in December.
Ford executives have said the Ranger became less important in the U.S. market as the company produced more fuel-efficient turbo-charged "EcoBoost" engines for its larger F-Series pickup trucks.
In 2011, the Ranger is the No. 2 compact pickup in the U.S. market, behind the Tacoma from Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>. Staying in the U.S. market once the Ranger goes away are Nissan Motor Co's <7201.T> Frontier, the third-biggest seller, and General Motors Co's
Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan wrote last week that small pickups in the U.S. market have "dwindled to virtual irrelevance."
Chrysler Group LLC in August stopped production of its Dakota small pickup. Chrysler is managed by Fiat SpA
Compact pickup trucks made up 4 percent of total U.S. industry sales in September, compared with a 26 percent share for full-sized pickups, according to Autodata Corp.
However, in Thailand, where the Ranger began production last week, small trucks like Ranger account for more than 40 percent of the market,
"For the rest of the world, you don't need quite the size and the capability that exists in the F-Series in North America," Hinrichs said.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)